The Politics of UN Leadership

The race is on to determine who will succeed Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary-General. The smart money will be on an East European candidate acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council – particularly Russia.

NEW DELHI – Election cycles are growing longer worldwide. In the United States, for example, ambitious politicians are already campaigning hard in bellwether states for the 2016 presidential election. Yet some races – such as that for the next United Nations secretary-general, which will also be held in 2016 – still occur largely under the radar. This should change.

A race for UN Secretary-General, which is usually fought so discreetly that it seems almost clandestine, bears little resemblance to the razzmatazz of an American presidential campaign. This can be explained largely by the fact that the decision comes down to the 15 members of the Security Council, who select the candidate to be rubber-stamped by the UN General Assembly (as has occurred in every case so far). Crucially, the Security Council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – have veto power, so a majority means nothing if a single member of the P-5 dissents.

The selection process is constrained further by an informal – but, after 43 years, essentially requisite – agreement to rotate through regions every two terms. (The only exception was the extremely popular and well-regarded Kofi Annan, who, despite having succeeded another African after one term, was selected for two consecutive terms.) With the position having cycled, since 1971, through Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia – Ban Ki-moon, the current second-term secretary-general, hails from South Korea – only one UN region has yet to be represented: Eastern Europe.